Are your supporters not getting your emails? How to fix your deliverability so emails don’t go to spam.

Giovanni Hashimoto
Nov 12 · 9 min read

Your cause is important.

You’re emailing your list because you need to get their attention. You craft a well-written, well-designed email.

But when you send, something frustrating happens. Open rates are languishing in the teens (or even worse, single digits).

Since only a sliver of your list is even opening your email, your email doesn’t perform as well as it should.

Then, to add insult to injury, you’re talking to a major supporter about the topic you just sent an email about and they ask: “Why didn’t you send me an email about it?”

Sound familiar? We hear about this issue from potential and new clients at A+G all the time. It’s a problem many campaigns face every day. In a world where emails are still a prevailing form of online communication, bad deliverability can be deadly.

Of course, if you’re just starting out, you can lay a good foundation. It’s always easier to keep your list healthy by following best practices for email optimization and avoiding spam.

But what if you inherit an unhealthy list?

The good news is that unlike spoiled milk, an unhealthy list can be nursed back to health.

In this post, we’ll go over how to benchmark your list’s current health. Then, we’ll outline tactics you can use to improve deliverability and make sure your emails are reaching their intended recipients.

Testing deliverability

One way to track your deliverability is by checking your “domain reputation” from Gmail. Google categorizes domains into four categories: “bad,” “low,” “medium,” and “high.” These categories help Google decide whether your email goes into your supporter’s inbox or spam filter.

At A+G, we recently helped a client with severe deliverability issues. It was reflected in their domain reputation.

Check out the result:

Chart of domain reputation increaseing from bad in early June 2019 to high by mid July.
Chart of domain reputation increaseing from bad in early June 2019 to high by mid July.

In less than two months, we were able to help improve their domain reputation from “Bad” in early June to “High” in by mid-July.

So even if your email program has hit the rocks, don’t lose hope. Using data, you can rebuild your reputation and deliverability. But it requires judiciously following a proven strategy.

Benchmarking your list’s health

The most important measure of whether your supporters are receiving your emails is how many people open and interact with your emails. Our preferred online organizing toolset, ActionNetwork, recently posted a guide to deliverability that provided benchmarks:

In today’s world where hundreds of billions of emails are sent every day, email providers treat any email that is unlikely to be interacted with by the recipient as spam.

It doesn’t matter if they explicitly opted-in (although that’s certainly best practice) or that they were acquired through a swap or purchase. If they’re unlikely to interact, then the email gets filtered or goes to spam.

If your open rate shows that your supporters aren’t opening your emails, it doesn’t matter what you see in Gmail Postmaster or Microsoft’s Smart Network Data Services.

The signals included in these services provide a great start to understanding how major email services view your domain. But the best test of deliverability is your open rate.

So how do I fix my deliverability?

It’s common sense but it bears repeating. How many people see and open your email is dependent on two primary factors: what you’re sending and who you’re sending it to.

Managing your list to success

Who you’re sending to is the easiest factor affecting deliverability to fix.

Too often, the focus is on what’s inside emails forgetting that list health is far more impactful to deliverability.

It doesn’t matter if you have the best content. If you’re emailing people who are unlikely to engage — Gmail and other email providers will treat it as spam. Then, even the people who are likely to engage won’t see your message! It’s important to maintain good list hygiene.

1. Unsubscribe inactive subscribers

If you’ve been emailing regularly and a subscriber has not engaged with any of your messages, they’re inactive. And — we can’t emphasize this enough: emailing inactive users does more harm than good.

Stop. emailing. inactive. users. (!!!)

The best thing to do is to automate this process. If someone hasn’t engaged with your emails for a significant period of time then they should automatically be segmented out of your main list.

After a reactivation campaign, if they don’t engage, unsubscribe them. They’re not opening your emails anyway, and they’re hurting your ability to reach your other (engaged) supporters.

Your most active supporters are who are most likely to click through and take your actions. If your emails reach them, they’re probably primed to be the lion’s share of online fundraising.

Don’t drag down your ability to reach your best supporters by emailing inactives.

2. Segment by topic and engagement

Don’t send every email to everyone on your list.

It’s simple if you think about it. If you email someone engaging content about topics they care about, they’ll open and engage with it. Your open rate and CTR will go up.

If you email someone about something they clearly don’t care about, they won’t open the email and your open rate will go down. If you trick someone into opening an email they don’t care about, your CTR will drop and they’re less likely to open it the next time you are emailing about something they care about.

Both scenarios are bad for your sender reputation. You’ll hurt your ability to get your message in front of the people who are most likely to engage with it and support your work. That’s not what you want.

Find out what your supporters care about. Only email them about what they care about (and topics that directly relate directly with it).

3. Don’t buy lists

Purchased lists are bad news for many reasons. If you’re subject to GDPR, this is particularly important. Luckily, most US-based organizations don’t have to deal with this particular headache but this doesn’t justify bad practices.

One big reason is that they will often contain spam traps.

What is a spam trap? They come in many varieties but the short version is that they are inactive addresses email providers use to expose senders who spam users and/or have poor list management practices. You don’t want to trigger one.

The best rule of thumb: never buy lists. It’s bad news.

A note on explicit opt in

It’s always best to limit your list to only subscribers who have explicitly opted into emails from you. This means setting a clear expectation that they will receive emails from you.

When doing list swaps or joint actions, segment any new emails as prospects and introduce yourself. Don’t move anyone into your general list until they’ve somehow opted in. Quickly drop anyone who doesn’t engage with your emails as inactive. Otherwise, you risk impacting your deliverability.

Sending emails that boost engagement

Of course, even if your emails are topical and you’ve properly segmented, you may find your emails underperforming (or even heading to spam) if your supporters don’t engage with them.

Email providers have gotten smart. Running your emails through a spam checklist isn’t enough anymore. If your emails don’t consistently produce high open rates and high engagement, they’ll start going into spam (even if you’re not violating any clear-cut spam rules).

Sending emails that build engagement is about a lot more than following best practices. They need to be engaging.

Timely emails

Rapid response emails are consistently among the highest performing emails for many lists. Why? Because they’re timely. You’re coming to your supporters about something that just happened with clear urgency.

If something relevant to your cause happens, race to get an email out to your supporters about it. Tell them what happened and ask them to take action with a clear theory of change.

Emails capitalizing on a key date in the political calendar can also be highly effective. Create a calendar of key political dates (or use ours!) and plan some of your messaging around that.

Maybe, it’s an anniversary of a major bill passing? A holiday? Or a debate:

Some of it may seem gimmicky, but making your emails timely is effective. And when the stakes are high, we can’t afford to leave anything on the field.

But keep this caveat in mind: if every campaign is emailing you about the same exact thing at the same exact time (e.g. debate night) then engagement may suffer. The important thing is asking yourself what is timely and interesting to your subscribers. The answer is dependent on your organization and the issue(s) you talk about.

Clear and compelling subject lines

You can have amazing, relevant, and timely content inside your emails. You can use all the data at your disposal to ensure that it only gets to supporters who care deeply about your cause. But unless your subject line compels your readers to open your email, it’s all for nothing.

Traditionally, conventional wisdom said short and direct subject lines that teased content performed best. But lately, that calculus is changing and many campaigns and marketers are moving towards longer subject lines.

And should you use emojis? This is another area where conventional wisdom says no. But many marketers and campaigns are using emojis in subject lines and seeing good results (with no corresponding drop in open rates).

The truth is, nobody knows what’s best for your list until you test it. So get creative and run tests to see what gets your subscribers to open your email and take action.

Use sender and previews to your advantage

The subject line isn’t the only part of the email you can use to entice subscribers to open your email.

Take advantage of the sender field and use custom senders that hammer home your topic as appropriate.

And the preview line (the hidden part of the email that shows up after the subject line)? Don’t just have the first line of your content. Put something unique that’ll make people want to open your beautiful email.

Make your emails pop

Designing good emails is the key to sustaining engagement over the long run.

Build templates that are sleek and mobile-friendly and include visuals (e.g. graphics, emojis) whenever appropriate in your emails.

If you’re following the same format used by every campaign, you don’t stand out. A/B test different formats and lengths (don’t limit your testing to subject lines!) and iterate based on what activates your list.

Sometimes popping isn’t about flare at all, sometimes it’s being simple without the frills.

Take the infamous petition emails popularized during this election cycle. In these emails, the subject line says 90% of what needs to be said and the body of the email is a hyperlink to take an action like signing a petition.

That format was utilized by numerous presidential campaigns, from Bernie to Beto and Kirsten (and organizations including the Working Families Party and Future Fund). Why? Because it got people’s attention and drove them to take action.

Accessibility

Unfortunately, accessibility is often ignored when it comes to email. Even big organizations (and companies) fail at this!

Obviously, this is incredibly unfair to the millions of Americans are not able-bodied and aren’t able to read emails properly.

Making sure our communications are accessible is a key way for us to live our values.

If that’s not enough, note that sending emails that all your supporters can’t read is bad for business. Failing to adapt your emails to their needs means you’re abandoning them as supporters.

Take some time to think through making sure your email designs are accessible. That means clear fonts, clear designs (with essential information also provided in text), and more. Here’s one checklist of things to keep in mind so your emails are accessible.

The Upshot

It’s been said that campaigns used to be about who you’d like to have a beer with. Now, campaigns are about who can get their supporters to open emails and respond.

Fixing deliverability may seem like an uphill fight, but if you want to reach your supporters it’s a battle you have no choice but to fight. Luckily, the steps to fixing lists that have already been destroyed are clear: it just takes some time and patience.

Was this post useful? At A+G Digital, we help Democratic candidates and progressive organizations run cutting-edge digital programs. We’d love to chat with you. Get in touch at contact@agdigital.us.

A+G: Digital Lab for Campaigns

Helping progressive causes, candidates, and organizations run the most efficient and effective digital campaigns possible.

Giovanni Hashimoto

Written by

Progressive digital politics.

A+G: Digital Lab for Campaigns

Helping progressive causes, candidates, and organizations run the most efficient and effective digital campaigns possible.

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